The buck starts here
26 October 2014 02:07 (South Africa)
Opinionista Ivo Vegter

Rethinking the costly food label madness

  • Ivo Vegter
It is expensive to analyse food to comply with mandatory food labelling laws. Expensive, and in many cases, entirely superfluous. Voluntary labelling achieves most of the same benefits, but at a significantly lower cost of implementation and compliance policing. Cheaper food sounds like smart policy, in this day and age.

Sharply rising food prices in recent years have led to alarming increases in hunger, malnutrition and even social unrest. These consequences are particularly acute in countries with high levels of poverty, such as South Africa.

The causes of food price inflation are manifold, and I wouldn’t want to diminish others, but among them are onerous regulations such as detailed food labelling that are expensive to implement and enforce.

Some argue mandatory food labelling is justifiable on the basis that it limits fraud. This is not quite true. Fraud constitutes deception perpetrated by means of false claims. It requires positive claims that are known to be false, or egregious omissions of known facts that would change the decision of a buyer.

Simply not bothering to specify detailed product features does not constitute fraud. If a buyer wants to know, the onus is on the buyer to ask or to do business with someone who chooses to specify the features the buyer is interested in.

It should be noted that labels aren’t all they’re cracked up to be, either. Vague propaganda about what constitutes “organic” or whether it is good for you – and recent research has found it makes no difference at all – doesn’t make for a more informed buying public.

Moreover, in cases when one might be interested in the nutritional content of food, such as when buying fresh bread, fruit, vegetables or meat, labels are neither required nor practical anyway.

Ironically, the sort of business model that most appeals to the food-label fascists and eco-hippies – farmer’s markets, home industries and “locavore” eateries – is the least well equipped to implement the kind of rigorous production process control and complex analysis that commercial food labelling requires. Costly and complex regulation always harms well-resourced incumbents less than it harms small competitors, so it constitutes a relative competitive advantage for big business. It suits large supermarket chains to support food labelling laws, because they know mom-and-pop greengrocer and butchery stores don’t enjoy the economies of scale they need to readily absorb these costs.

That doesn’t mean there are no legitimate reasons to seek out foods that are labelled. If you have allergies, for example, or you suffer from conditions such as diabetes or hypertension, you care deeply about whether your food might kill you. If so, you have good reason to seek out suppliers that label their food to cater to customers for whom this matters. Many companies that produce or sell mass-market foods will be only too happy to label their products in such a way that they don’t exclude a significant part of their potential market. Besides catering for people with genuine health needs, these firms will also profit handsomely from those who are simply fussy about what they eat, without unnecessarily raising the barriers to entry for small-scale food producers, or increasing the price of food for all.

In such a voluntary labelling regime, instead of imposing prior conditions on foods that raise their price for everyone, the food police can reserve their resources for companies that make false claims. If you say your product contains little salt, or no sugar, or oodles of meat balls, and it is discovered that you’re lying, you should pay severe penalties. This is fraud, and fraud is a crime. Moreover, it endangers the public.

A generic case that all food ought to be labelled with detailed ingredients, however, is much harder to justify than simply demanding honest labelling on a voluntary basis.
In some cases, such as declaring that a packet of peanuts was packaged in a factory that handles nuts, it is patently absurd. In other cases the benefits are slim, while the costs are high.

For example, campaigners might be upset that there is no law in South Africa unambiguously requiring the labelling of genetically modified (GM) food, but even the scare-mongering magazine Biophile, which uses terrifying terms like “Frankenfood” to declare its bias, noted: “Despite the lack of regulations governing food labelling, many food products available to the South African consumer carry negative or positive labels with regard to genetic modification, such as ‘non-GMO’, ‘GMO Free’ or similar.”

The problem is that doing so is expensive. It requires separating bulk foodstuffs in the supply chain and tracking it from farm to store shelf to prevent cross-contamination. It requires laboratory testing and analysis. These costs inevitably end up in the price of food. At the margin, this can put sufficiently nutritious food out of the reach of the poor.

If you really are afraid of genetic engineering because you read Day of the Triffids when you were little and it turned you into a neurotic worrywart who thinks progress is regress and science is from the devil, don’t make your problems mine. I see little essential difference between inefficient kinds of genetic manipulation, such as selecting seed stock for drought-resistance or yield, or breeding hybrids that combine desirable agricultural traits, and efficient kinds of genetic manipulation, such as isolating drought-resistant genes and splicing them into ordinary crops. I’ve seen little convincing science, either in theory or in practice, which suggests genetic modification in food poses a significant threat to our health.
On the contrary. A recent systematic review of the literature in the Journal of Food and Chemical Toxicology, for example, compiled results from a dozen long-term studies and a dozen more multigenerational studies of GM foods and found: “Results from all the 24 studies do not suggest any health hazards and, in general, there were no statistically significant differences within parameters observed. … The studies reviewed present evidence to show that GM plants are nutritionally equivalent to their non-GM counterparts and can be safely used in food and feed.”

I accept that you may have been swayed by exaggerations and emotive appeals of anti-GM lobby groups. Perhaps you’ve been swayed by anecdotal results of outlier studies that claim to have found observed harmful effects in rodents and feel you’re more mouse than man. If so, buy from so-called “health food” outlets that are prepared to make the claim that their food is GM-free and charge a big fat premium to exploit your fears in this way. That is your right.

It is not, however, your right to make my food more expensive by demanding that my food be labelled if it does contain GM ingredients. I don’t care. I’m perfectly content to assume food is genetically modified, unless otherwise stated. Only when it is otherwise stated and is not true do you have grounds to feel hard done by.

If you want to know what’s in your food, then buy from a brand manufacturer who caters to your needs by choosing to label food. Don’t demand that others pay the price for your fears, whether they’re justified or not. Some of us don’t need, and can’t afford, your fussiness. DM

  • Ivo Vegter
IvoVegterBW

Ivo Vegter is a columnist and the author of Extreme Environment, a book on environmental exaggeration and how it harms emerging economies. He approaches issues from the perspective of individual liberty and free markets. He grew up in the deep south of Johannesburg, and learnt his politics reading the Weekly Mail and Vrye Weekblad at Wits University during the early years of the country's transition to democracy. He recently left the city for the lower cost of living of Knysna, where he continues to write about everything under the sun. He is always right.

More By Ivo Vegter
Click for More

Comments
Our policy dictates first names and surnames must be used to comment on articles. Failure to do so will see them removed. We also reserve the right to delete comments deemed lewd, racist or just generally not contributing to intelligent debate that have been flagged by other readers. As a general rule of thumb, just avoid being a douchebag and you'll be ok, both on these pages and in life. Read the full policy here

blog comments powered by Disqus